It's 1:30 p.m., and a strange scene is playing out in front of the National Library in Athens. It's a telling moment -- one that says a lot about why thousands of hooligans have managed to terrorize public life in Greece's largest city for days now -- and why neither the police nor concerned residents have been able to stop them.
A blonde-haired woman in her mid-thirties stands amidst the thick fog of tear gas and wafts of smoke rising from a few burning trash bags. She's wearing a pant suit and carries folders under her arms. She's talking to a young Black Bloc protester wearing a Quicksilver sweatshirt of the same color, Adidas tennis shoes and a Nike backpack. He's got stones in his hands.
The two seem enthusiastic as they chat to each other, smiling and cracking jokes. Perhaps they're related. At the same time, the mates of a rioter standing next to him are busy ripping apart the sidewalk. The woman says goodbye, kissing both of his cheeks, before gracefully tottering away. Then one of the rioters turns around, picks up a large rock and throws it down into the street where the police are standing.
It's the daily dose of anarchy in Athens, that entered into its fifth day on Wednesday.
The Greek riots are a textbook example of how deep a country can sink if it lacks democracy's most important element, the support and acceptance of its people. The scales of democracy have tipped here, and one inevitably gets the impression these days that there are few left who still trust the government to find the right path. Their experiences with its scandals, cronyism and corruption are too deeply seated. And it is in their unanimous rejection of the elite that both business people and the Black Bloc anarchists have found common ground.
"I love my country," says Theo, a 62-year-old, white-haired man who lived for years in Germany as an immigrant worker, "but I hate its politics." He says he has never regarded the Greek government as more corrupt, scheming and dirty-handed than it is today. "Something finally needs to change, otherwise this place is going to go to the dogs," curses Theo, a shoe salesman and socialist.
'We Want a Different Country'
Around the same time, another man who calls himself Christo (though he almost certainly has a different real name) is standing behind the protective barrier at the Polytechnic University, where the rebels have found refuge. He's thrown a scarf over his face, but his brown eyes dart back and forth to the point you can't tell if he's on drugs or just bleary-eyed and high on a rush from street fighting with the police.
"We want a different country and another society. That's why we are fighting and I am prepared to give my life for it," the 23-year-old says, with high drama before beating his hands on his chest in a grand, Tarzan-like gesture. He won't say how he expects to achieve those aims by lobbing stones at police and Molotov cocktails at luxury sedans.
Indeed, one of the problems with this Greek tragedy is that there are no indications of when it might end. The Black Bloc can't win -- their aims are illusory at best, assuming anyone even takes them seriously -- and their resources are limited.
Many of the several thousand hooligans who continued marauding through the streets of Athens Wednesday seem to have little more than an irrepressible thirst for the comparably serious, but still relatively non-dangerous slugfest with the cops. They hurl stones at police and when the security officials storm towards them, they simply retreat. It's tantamount to testosterone-driven men in their early twenties playing a game of tag.
But the police haven't been able to succeed in putting a stop to the riots themselves. Police officers are patrolling large swathes of the city, but only in small units -- and they appear to be trying to compensate for their short-handedness with swift action. They throw tear gas grenades and they storm the protestors, but they make few arrests. The actions are largely ineffective and they seem to do more to escalate the conflict than to curtail it.
"They should finally protect us," rails the owner of a mobile phone store whose storefront was smashed. "How long is this supposed to go on? It's an unacceptable situation." Christiana, 43, says she has nothing against the protests, far from it, but urges the rioters not to place the burden on small-time shopkeepers. "I can't afford this," she says.
How much longer the riots will last is still an open question. Christos, the stone thrower and prospective engineer, is sure that they'll die down in the next few days. A policeman, who imagined himself for a moment to be unobserved by his colleagues, says ambiguously: "I hope that the end is near." Meanwhile, shoe seller Theo sounds off: "Tomorrow it will be over."
Victim Reportedly Hit by Ricocheting Bullets
Perhaps the momentary cease-fire owes something to the news that Alexandros Grigoropoulos, the school boy who was killed on Saturday by police fire, was evidently hit by a ricocheting bullet. "It was an accident," said the lawyer for the accused police officer Epaminondas Korkoneas. Similar reports also came from justice officials.
Before the projectile struck Alexandros, it apparently bounced off something else. The case does not involve a targeted deadly shooting, as the protesters have insinuated, according to reports. The results from a ballistic analysis, however, have not yet been released.
Officer Korkoneas, apparently called "Rambo" by his colleagues, has stated that he fired three warning shots, and that one of these ricocheted and hit the victim. The 37-year-old now hopes to be prosecuted not for manslaughter or murder, but only for negligent homicide. So far, his 31-year-old colleague has only been accused of being an accessory to manslaughter.
At noon on the streets, though, the calls were "Pigs, swines, murders!"